Emery backing Cutler as 'franchise' quarterback

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Emery backing Cutler as 'franchise' quarterback

Even as coach Lovie Smith was being fired as head coach for failures of the Bears offenses under him, quarterback Jay Cutler was being given another vote of confidence as a franchise quarterback in Chicago.

At least for one more year.

Jays won a lot of games, GM Phil Emery said on Tuesday. I think the important thing is we continue to build around him. That to me is part of the equation.

And as to whether Cutler is the long-term answer for the Bears, that answer is going to come as we move forward with a new head coach, said Emery, whose fate as a general manager now rests very heavily on Cutlers success. Am I convinced that Jay has the talent to be that? Yes, I am.

Ill say the same thing that I said this summer: I see Jay as a franchise quarterback. Weve got to build around him. Thats been the goal from the beginning, to build around Jay and to build our team towards championships.

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Emery did stop short of stating that the new Bears coach will be handcuffed to Cutler the way Emery was for a year with Smith. But any candidate who does not see in Cutler what Emery does will need to be very, very convincing in his job interview.

Im not saying that the new coach has to buy in on Cutler, Emery said. Im saying that Im looking for a head coach that can take all the unique talents that we have and bring them together toward winning championships.

The future in the middle

Emery refused to commit to a contract extension for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher back before the season, with Urlacher coming off a knee injury. But while doubters focused on what Urlacher wasnt (the same as he was a decade ago), Emery was seeing significant progress through the season before Urlacher went down with a hamstring injury in the loss to Seattle.

Urlacher looked a little rusty early in the year, Emery said, which Urlacher himself admitted. By the Seattle game Urlacher had speed and burst back. And Emery was satisfied with how Urlacher also functioned in pass drops.

What makes Urlachers return difficult to gauge is how the new head coach will value Urlachers leadership and fit into possibly a new scheme.

The things that are very difficult to replace for Brian and would be to replace for Brian, if we were ever to move in a different direction, is the leadership that he has and the knowledge base that he has with our system, Emery said.

The three-technique

Smiths defensive scheme relied heavily on a defensive tackle capable of consistently winning against single blocking and generating an inside pass rush. He had that with Tommie Harris.

Henry Melton provided some of that last season and was voted a starter in the Pro Bowl despite a chest injury that took him out for a couple of games.

But Melton is a free agent at one of the NFLs most expensive positions and is coming off seasons of seven and six sacks. Re-signing him will be a priority.

Henry had a good year, Emery said. I know he was probably disappointed because he didnt get to finish as well as he wanted because he had a chest injury. He was productive and got better as a run player.

Offensive line

Emery adamantly defended his offseason actions as far as improving the offensive line but conceded that pass protection needed to be improved. The process last offseason was to look at a thin market for unrestricted free agent tackles (several possibilities were not available) and the decision was made in the draft to add to the pass rush with Shea McClellin and add to the stable of playmakers on offense with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.

My though process was, before we went into the draft, to analyze with our coaches and with our staff, weve got two tackles and we had determined that was our greatest need, Emery said. That area will be looked at closely again this offseason.

Emery also stated that tight end Kellen Davis had a rough year as a receiver. Indications are that efforts will be made for an upgrade at the position, with input from the new head coach.

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

The adage “play the man, not the board” seems somehow appropriate for what the Bears are doing to prepare for the Detroit Lions behind quarterback Matt Barkley.

“The man” is Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and the Bears have been scouting him as well as his defenses, beyond just Bears games, beyond this season and last, taking in his 2014 Detroit season when Austin prepared defenses for Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

How did Austin scheme for rookie Carson Wentz when the Lions played (and beat) the Philadelphia Eagles? How did he structure is defense to stop a rookie Teddy Bridgewater when Detroit played Minnesota? (Not very well, apparently, since the Vikings won both games and scored 54 points combined in the two games).

While the John Fox Bears staff went against Austin’s Lions defense twice last year, Cutler was the Bears quarterback. When the Bears beat Austin and the Lions two months ago, it was with Brian Hoyer.

Now the Bears quarterback is Matt Barkley, who has fewer NFL games played (seven) than Cutler has NFL seasons (11), Hoyer (eight), too, for that matter.

“Different defensive coordinators attack young quarterbacks differently,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “Some guys blitz, some guys play a bunch of zone. This group on defense there, they have a really good defensive coordinator, they're really smart, they do a bunch of stuff. On the back end, they run all the coverages.

“As a game, we'll have to make adjustments as the game goes and see what their plan to come out is early.”

Coaches and players may talk about how they prepare for a scheme irrespective of which opposing quarterback, running back, linebacker or whatever they will be facing. But in fact, preparations start with who is orchestrating the opponent’s offense or defense – play the man, not the board.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

A risk can be out-thinking yourself trying to anticipate what a coordinator will do. The first point, Loggains said, is to start with your own strengths.

“We definitely look at that,” Loggains said. “As you go in the league long and longer, you face these guys, you see them in crossover games. We always know how a guy attacks a rookie quarterback or attacks a young quarterback, a veteran, or, in Matt's case, a guy who hasn't played as much.”

Evaluations of Barkley’s performance will broaden, particularly now that he is on tape for defensive coordinators to scheme for and scout. And while they are watching Barkley, the Bears are watching them.